Introduction to Flying Ointments
© 2011-2016 Sarah Anne Lawless
he majority of questions I receive in emails from fellow magic workers are about flying ointments so I thought I would write out the information here in one place where anyone can access it for free. I won’t tell you not to experiment with dangerous poisons as it would be hypocritical of me, but I will say that if you don’t have at least a grasp of what the more dangerous plants are capable of, their side effects, and the proper dosages, you shouldn’t be fooling around with them period. Let me say that again — period. The one thing I will not share in this article (or by private email) is dosage of individual plants. Dosage is not something that can easily be determined, especially with such dangerous poisons, as it depends on your own body weight, chemistry, and tolerance as well as the unique growing conditions and harvest time of each individual plant. If you want to use the Solanaceae that badly, then do the research or undergo professional herbalist training where you will learn how to first use miniscule amounts of herbs and slowly go from there.
A Background and History
For those who may not know, a flying ointment is a salve or oil infused with psychoactive herbs purportedly used by witches to fly to their Sabbath rites in the early modern period during the height of the witch hunts in Europe. Early witch hunters perpetuated the myth that witches craft their ointments from the rendered fat of babies, but it was only fear-mongering propaganda.
Animal fats were used as the base to extract the potent oils and alkaloids from these poisonous plants because animal fats were convenient and accessible even to the poor. Today with the help of modern science we know that our skin will absorb a salve made with hog’s lard more quickly and easily than any other substance because our genetics are so similar to a pig’s. Adding plant-based oils to an animal fat remedies the problem of absorbing a substance foreign to our bodies. Our ancestors were pretty clever weren’t they?
Some may think flying ointments only go back as far as the Middle Ages as the majority of written accounts and recipes are from that period. But if we look in mythology, ancient literature, and folktales, we find a rich source of lore that leads back to pre-Christian times. Flying ointments are mentioned in Apollonius Rhodius’ The Argonautica from 200 BCE, Lucius Apuleius’ The Golden Ass from around 160 CE, and the oldest possible reference is in Homer’s The Iliad from around 800 BCE where the goddess Hera uses an oil of ambrosia to fly to Olympus, never touching the earth.
So now we know flying ointments go at least as far back as ancient Greece and Rome, but what about even further back into history? Remains found of henbane, belladonna, and marijuana in Scotland and Northern Europe date as far back as the Neolithic period – that’s at least 10,000 years ago! (1) These plants were mostly found in the form of seeds and remnants of ritual alcoholic beverages so it is not known if they were used in salves by the magical practitioners of the time, but the pits upon pits of animal bone refuse show that Neolithic peoples had easy access to animal fats. It’s not too far off, I think, to put the two together – but it’s just this witch’s hopeful estimation.
What are the Herbs Used?
Most flying ointment recipes include plants from the Solanaceae family; you may recognize some or all of them: belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake. Other traditional flying ointment herbs include the opium poppy, water hemlock, monkshood, and foxglove. Wherever these plants are to be found, so are witches. Our symbiotic relationship with these poisonous plants goes back into the far reaches of time
Solanaceae contain the alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine. The tropane compound within the Solanaceae family can cause heart problems or even heart failure among other issues when ingested, but if you use them externally they are much less dangerous, however careful dosage is still needed to avoid things like permanent blindness and death. The other well-known ingredients of foxglove, hemlock, aconite (also known as monkshood) should never be used in modern ointments now that we know better – they only poison and paralyze.
Traditional less poisonous plants used include balm of gilead, calamus root, cannabis, clary sage, dittany of Crete, mugwort, tansy, wormwood, and yarrow. There is a bit of controversy whether fly agaric or other psychoactive mushrooms were used and if their constituents are even fat-soluble, but there is currently no documentation on the subject to prove or disprove it. Balm of gilead (the buds of any poplar tree species) can be found in almost every flying ointment recipe from the Middle Ages as poplar salves were used for healing much more than they were used by witches for flying. Do not use balm of gilead if you are allergic to aspirin. The flying effects of calamus root are best felt from ingestion rather than topical application so I would only recommend adding it for its metaphysical properties and sweet smell. If you use calamus make sure it is the carcinogen-free species Acorus calamus americanus native to N. America.
Mugwort, oreganos (including dittany of Crete), sages (including clary sage), tansy, and wormwood contain thujone which is a stimulant and believed to be the cause of their psychoactive properties. Yarrow, while not having psychoactive properties, has been traditionally used by shamans for centuries to protect the body while the soul is journeying and to aid in bringing the soul and the person back to consciousness (3). Yarrow was more commonly burned as a smudge for these purposes, but can be smoked or added to a salve as well.
Modern Flying Ointments
“…despite the fact that none of the ‘modern witches’ themselves have any experience with the plants, they warn about the poisonous additives… [I]t is considered trendy to brew ‘modern flying ointments, guaranteed to not be poisonous.” The recipes are nothing more than ineffective rubbish.”
Christian Rätsch, Witchcraft Medicine
Like Rätsch I’ve seen numerous “crafty” witch books in the neoPagan market carelessly list the poisonous ingredients of Medieval flying ointment recipes with no dosages and then, in bold font with many an asterisk, tell the reader to never to attempt to make or use the recipes. Then the authors proceed to list two or more non-toxic flying ointment recipes that usually contain herbs and essential oils completely unrelated to soul-flight and otherworld travel. Many online Pagan shops are selling such recipes right now. An ointment that smells pretty but does nothing is only going to result in very pissed off witches.
My advice to you is to avoid modern flying ointments lauding their non-toxic properties as all that will happen is you’ll have $10-40 less than you did before (unless it’s one of Harry’s ambrosial flying oils, of course). You should also be very careful of people selling supposed “genuine” flying ointments with the traditional herbs, but who don’t list their ingredients or give health warnings. This is very dangerous as many people are allergic to these herbs or have heart conditions and could be seriously harmed, ending up in the hospital.
How a Flying Ointment Works
The alkaloids present in the traditional herbs used in flying ointments and other preparations have been shown by scientific experiments to activate your pineal gland by increasing the flow of melatonin inducing a dream-like state while you are awake. Normally, this only happens naturally at night while you are enshrouded in darkness. This results in dream-like experiences and visions that may seem completely real even if you are sitting awake in your kitchen and not flying as a hawk in the sky. I personally differentiate this state from hallucination as it is more of an altered mental state akin to lucid dreaming and is much more relaxed. To enhance this natural effect while using a flying ointment, use it in darkness or at night, and alongside ecstatic trance inducing methods.
Psychoactive plants are believed to remove the barriers between our world and the world of the spirits and gods; they essentially are keys to the otherworld door and, some would say, to the entire universe. Consciousness is like seeing the world through a keyhole as there’s only so much you are able to see – we are too busy looking at the limited amount of what we can see, naming, cataloguing, and trying to explain everything in our field of vision, that we do not see what is beyond the keyhole or what is behind us in the dark. Now what if someone gave you a key? Would you put it in the lock and turn it to open the door and see all the wonders and horrors on the other side? Flying ointments are one such key.
Flying ointments are used to aid in trance, astral travel, and spirit work, to receive divine inspiration (awen, imbas, the cunning fire), to help release the spirit from the body, for hedgecrossing, for shapeshifting, or to enhance or access powers for magic, rituals, and spellwork.
How to Use a Flying Ointment
Before you use an ointment in a ritual setting I recommend first doing a tiny test patch on a piece of bare skin to make sure you don’t have an allergic reaction. Then I would recommend testing out its strength and your tolerance. When you do this, you should have a friend with you or someone you’ve told your plans to who you can call in case of emergency. Use only a small amount to start testing your level of tolerance – a pea-sized amount is good. Wait to see how you feel. Always wait a minimum of 30 min to feel the effects before using more salve. If you are comfortable with the level of effects you are feeling, stop there, and then apply that same amount for ritual use. If it’s not enough, apply another pea-sized amount to your bare skin and increase as needed. The effects may take 30 minutes to 2 hours to appear depending on sex, weight, and tolerance and may last 1-6 hours. Depending on your height and weight, 1-2 tsps of ointment is a standard dose for a smaller person and 2-3 tsps for a larger person (for the ointments I make – dosage will vary for other people’s recipes). Flying Ointments can be mixed with cannabis and alcohol, but before doing so make sure you have tested the ointment alone first in case of any adverse reactions.
To use for magic and ritual, whisper to your jar of salve and reveal your intent; do you want to achieve soul-flight, shapeshift into an owl, borrow the plant’s powers for a spell? Then say so out loud to the plants and any spirits and deities you have called. You could say something along the lines of “as I anoint my body with this salve my spirit will loosen from its flesh and fly from here to [desired location].” If you are using a flying ointment for a group ritual, it is best for everyone to share a common purpose for its use.
The myth that witches apply flying ointment to their genitals or their brooms and “ride” them is exactly that, a myth. I found one reference to it in a witch trial under torture and the other references come from it and are sensationalist prose written by poets inspired by the trial. There are other accounts of witches rubbing ointments on chairs and tables and sitting on them, but there is no penetration. As a witch who makes and uses flying ointments I’ve found it is not necessary to anoint one’s mucous membranes for quick absorption (please don’t rape your broom or staff). Many of the plants used are very toxic and very potent and you do not want them near your sensitive bits as they can cause skin abrasions, rashes, and worse discomforts and you wont’ be able to wash it off. Please keep anything with henbane or belladonna away from your genitals and mucous membranes!
The only ointment I’ve found safe for one’s naughty bits is a pure mandrake ointment which can be used for sex magic by anointing each partner’s sex organs before doing the deed. Magically, the best places to apply a flying ointment are the base of the neck for the spine’s connection to the World Tree, the third eye, over the heart, the armpits (for wings), and the soles of the feet. Where your neck meets your spine and the third eye are especially effective because they are doorways in and out of your body.
To get the most out of your experience use a flying ointment in an atmospheric setting; in your decked-out temple room, in a pitch black space, under the moon and starlight, a beautiful spot in nature, or a place of threshold power (a place with water, land, and sky all present, a place between civilization and the wilds, a hedge, etc). Results are better when ointment use is combined with trance-inducing activities such as chanting, dancing, swaying, drumming, or breath work.
What to Expect
I need to say this as clearly as possible: the purpose of a flying ointment is NOT to “trip out” or “trip balls”. If you are hoping to pass out and hallucinate for days, losing all sense of reality, you will be sorely disappointed and should look elsewhere. Flying ointments are an aid, a tool for those with the gift — not a cannon that will shoot you to the otherworld. Flying ointments and their traditional plants are meant to be an aid for visionary experiences, not a wreaking ball to your sanity. If you hallucinate erratically a) your body and brain are freaking out and don’t know how to handle the alkaloids in the poisonous plants because it’s your first time ever using them, or, b) you’ve overdosed and need to cut way back on the dosage (you might also need to make a trip to the ER if they’re severe enough). Uncontrollable hallucinations are the body’s way of dealing with foreign chemicals that have effects our systems aren’t used to. Those who have never tried shrooms, cannabis, ecstasy, LSD, acid, and, heck, even wormwood and damiana before are more likely to experience hallucinations than someone who has tried them and knows what to expect. The more relaxed you are, the less likely you are to have a bad reaction.
What does a healthy reaction to a flying ointment feel like? It should feel like you are intoxicated; lightheadedness, silliness, and euphoria at first. Your pupils will dilate and your cheeks flush. You may experience dry mouth and blurry vision depending on what herbs are in the ointment (these effects are temporary). After, the experience should deepen, and colour, sound, smell, sight, and taste will all be enhanced. You will experience the mundane world differently and you may feel awe, amazement, and wonder at what you see and feel. You may have profound thoughts and realizations you normally would not. You may hear whispers or see glimpses of things you would not in ordinary consciousness. Suspension of disbelief will become easy in this dream-like state. And, when used ritually by those with the gift, you will be able to achieve things you’d never imagined when your spirit is separated from flesh; visionary experiences, shapeshifting into animals and elemental forces, long distance travel, dreamwalking, interacting with wights and shades…
I’ve also noted that using ointments with mandrake (mandragora officinarum) as the main ingredient lends one almost supernatural energy and stamina making it perfect for sex magic or all-night ecstatic rituals such as the witches’ sabbat I participated in at the Gathering Festival.
Everyone’s experiences will differ and individual reactions to the plants or a combination thereof cannot be predicted. While one person’s experience may be over powering, another may experience nothing. Only use will help discover which plant or combination of plants works best for you.
Contraindications (Warnings – Please Read Carefully)
Do not use flying ointments if you have a heart problem or serious kidney and liver problems. Do not use ointments containing belladonna if you are allergic to morphine and related opiates or you will have a very serious reaction and need to go to the emergency room. Do not mix with serious medications. Do not use when pregnant or breastfeeding. Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth after using the ointment. Keep away from children and pets. Do not drive or operate machinery while under the effects of a flying ointment. Side effects may include temporary dizziness, fatigue, and blurred vision (the latter especially if the ointment contains belladonna). Give yourself 2-5 hours to recover from the experience and get back to normal. In some cases, it may take 1-2 days to get your normal energy levels back.
If you feel hot, sweaty, nauseated, and you vomit, with no other factors contributing to it (food allergies, food poisoning, flu etc), you may be having an adverse reaction to one of the herbs (likely belladonna or datura) and should seek medical attention immediately. To reduce effects, wash the application areas with warm soapy water (or have a warm, not hot, shower), drink plenty of water, and avoid fatty foods.
- Clarke, Robert C., Fleming, Michael P. 1998. “Physical evidence for the antiquity of Cannabis sativa L“. Journal of the International Hemp Association. 5(2): 80-92.
- Della Porta, Giovanni Battista . De Miraculis Rerum Naturalium. 1558.
- Havens, K., Jefferson, L., and Marcello, P. Uses and Abuses of Plant-Derived Smoke: Its Ethnobotany as Hallucinogen, Perfume, Incense & Medicine. Oxford University Press, 2010
- MacGregor Mathers, S.L. The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin The Mage As Delivered by Abraham the Jew unto his Son Lamech, A.D. 1458. John M. Watkins: London, 1900.
- Müller-Ebeling, C., Rätsch, C., and Storl, W.D. Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants. Inner Traditions, 2003.
Article © 2011-13 Sarah Anne Lawless. Do not copy or use this article without the express permission of the author. All artwork used is in the public domain.